Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Zaki's Original Review: The Matrix

First published: April 9, 1999

Note: With this past Monday marking fifteen years (!!) since the revolutionary first Matrix flick hit theaters, I thought I'd dig into my archives and share what I had to say about it way back when. This gets the ball rolling on a longterm goal of mine to get the many film reviews I've written over the past twenty years preserved here. Here's the first such post, written while I was Arts & Entertainment Editor for The Courier in the Chicago 'burbs. Other archival reviews will follow pretty much whenever the fancy strikes.

The Matrix is an old fashioned crowd pleaser. Full to the brim with eye-popping effects and "How'd they do that?" stuntwork, it yearns to have audiences be utterly enraptured in its created reality, and for the most part it succeeds. In that sense, there's an eerie parallel being created with the film's basic plotline, which deals with the human race being lulled into subjugation by a race of supremely intelligent machines.

Granted, nothing particularly new or groundbreaking is being presented within the film's 210 minute running time. In fact, humanity as unwilling pawn of outside forces was also the storyline of last year's highly-underrated, highly-extraordinary Dark City. But although the plot borows heavily from Dark City, the two films show widely disparate, yet equally enthralling visions of their worlds.

City, directed by The Crow's Alex Proyas, made use of its nighttime setting to create an eerie ambiance of shadow and darkness. Matrix directors Andrew and Larry Wachowski, on the other hand, use advances in computer technology to their fullest, creating a world that, though seen before, has never been seen quite so well.

The erstwhile Messiah of The Matrix is Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. Reeves, in something of a slump at the box office of late, tosses out his surfer boy "Whoa, dude," persona of the Bill & Ted films, bringing to his performance a new confidence and poise that is refreshing. Laurence Fishburne plays the latest in a string of memorable characters as Morpheus (a role once earmarked for Val Kilmer), the leader of the human resistance, and the Zen-master mentor of Reeves' Neo.

The Wachowskis, Chicago natives who got their start writing for Marvel Comics in the early '90s, are hardly strangers to genre-mixing, having made their film debut with the lesbian crime caper Bound (starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon). Their comic book roots are highly evident, and that background is no doubt instrumental in making the film even more visually arresting than last year's similarly comic theme Blade. The Wachowskis are well aware of the cliches of the genre, and mange to neatly sidestep them.

There is clearly a set-up for a sequel at film's end (indeed, the Wachowskis have expressed interest in turning The Matrix into a trilogy), and because of this self-imposed handicap, the film lacks the sense of closure that in the end makes Dark City a superior film. Still, lest this be taken to mean that The Matrix is an unsatisfactory experience, make no mistakes. It hardly detracts from everything else that the film manages to achieve, and if any proposed follow-ups can achieve the level of virtuosity that's managed here, I say bring on The Matrix II. A

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